Words and photos by Kathryn Moseley
My eyes are forced open by the soft humming of my iPhone’s alarm. Fumbling around in the dark, hands patting in only partial wakefulness for the little block that is spitting out noise, I make contact with the off button and am submerged into quiet again. It’s midnight in the Sierra, where I’m section hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
An alpine start sounded like the best way to experience the highest peak in the contiguous United States: Mt. Whitney—or Tumanguya, as the original inhabitants of this continent have long called it. At least it did three hours ago when I went to bed; slightly less so now that I am fighting the weight of my eyelids, surrounded by the stillness of the middle of the night.
I peer out the front of my tent, stifling a yawn as the slow zipper echoes around me. All I can see is inky blackness, as if the darkness itself is a tangible presence. I imagine once I set out from beneath the canopy of trees I am camped beneath, I will get a front row seat to the stars, but for now, it is only nothingness.
I duck my head back inside, shivering as I re-zip the door. The idea of bailing on the early summit crosses my mind momentarily, the thought of sleep tempting. But it’s only a second of indecision before I begin to picture this July sunrise summit and determine that it will be worth it. So worth it.
Grabbing my headlamp from its place in the mesh pouch on the side of my tent, I flick it on to red mode and begin getting ready, the process a test of how much I can do without having to leave the coziness of my sleeping bag.
All I can see is inky blackness, as if the darkness itself is a tangible presence.
Layers pulled on. Pack emptied of all but the few things I will be taking up to the summit: snacks that I will stumble out to grab from my bear can and stuff into hip belt pockets. Foamie. Garmin. The sleeping bag that I must, at last, drag myself out of. With one last glance around my tent to confirm I haven’t missed anything, it is time to go, my body ducking through the vestibule and into the cool night air. Blinking in the darkness and the red glow of my headlamp, I orient myself towards the meadow from where I’ll set off with the three Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers I met the night before.
The darkness is so thick it’s nearly disorienting, the beams of four headlamps cutting through the night in flickering lines, small bugs flocking to the sudden light. Overhead, a sweeping expanse of stars is slung across a sky so clear I can see the Milky Way. I find myself exhaling a whispered, “woah”, the word a puff of condensation in front of my face.
“Y’all good?” Someone asks, though I can’t be sure who. We each nod in response (noticeable only because of the slight bobbing of headlamps up and down). Four bodies imperceptibly swaying back and forth in attempts to warm up, the mood one of eager anticipation tinged by sleepiness. Then we begin to walk. It takes a moment to find the trail after we cross the creek on the far side of the meadow.
The four of us pause, our sense of direction temporarily thrown off by the all-encompassing blackness that we stand in, but it isn’t long before we regain it and start hiking, the trail disappearing before us at the edge of the light of our headlamps. Quickly we disperse, two behind me and one in front, content to move along at our own paces.
The first three miles are cruisy silence, all quiet except for my breath into the night and the occasional clicking of my hiking poles against rock. As Crabtree Meadows falls away behind me, I begin to pass cool eerie expanses off to my right, confirmation of what I noticed the night before on the map. It’s not so much that I see the lakes in the pitch black as much as I feel them—these gaping holes in the landscape where the forest has opened up to boggy shoreline and still water.
The pitch of the trail increases as I start to leave the lakes, the winding ribbon of dirt turning sharply upwards into long switchbacks. I could easily be convinced that I am the only person alive on the earth right now, out here in the darkness. Occasionally, though, a circle of light from a headlamp ahead of me will surface, a dot reminding me I am not alone. Behind me, too, several switchbacks below, those tiny pinpoints of light anchor me to reality. Separate but together.
It is both strange and empowering to be comfortable here alone on the trail in the dark, just me and the steady crunching of my own two feet on the trail beneath me.
I’ve never been much for night hiking. Back in 2019 on the Pacific Crest Trail, tiring of the brutal afternoon heat in the desert, I would occasionally embark on walking before the sun rose out of sheer necessity. But I hated the thought that I was missing the expansive views of the desert’s vastness and the tall reaching arms of ocotillo branches, and the bursts of color from scrubby bushes and flowering cacti. Today, though, I will be descending in daylight the same trail I am now hiking up in the darkness, and that makes it better.
It is both strange and empowering to be comfortable here alone on the trail in the dark, just me and the steady crunching of my own two feet on the trail beneath me. Even though I have been hiking solo since I started this section of trail at Kennedy Meadows, night hiking is a different beast for me. Usually, it makes me jumpy, my mind turning every tiny noise into something that will probably, no, – definitely –, bring me death. But today, at 2:10am, with my pack weighing next to nothing on my back and my heart alight with the freedom of being in the mountains, all I feel is at home.
Also, a little bit like I’m going to vomit. As I near just over 13,000 feet, now well into the climb, I am enveloped by a heaviness that I attribute to the elevation. I’ve also been trying to finish a ProBar for the past four miles. Logically, I know I shouldn’t be climbing on an empty stomach, but even the smallest bite makes my stomach churn, the altitude and the early start and the taste of a cold, grainy bar causing me to mutter, “You are not allowed to throw up,” as if I can will my body to pull itself together.
I’m not sure what changes upon hitting 14,000 feet, but something has, my body feeling simultaneously lighter and stronger, steps surer, my stomach no longer threatening to turn. I arrive at the summit to find a couple of John Muir Trail hikers and one of the thru-hikers I had started out with, all hunched against the wind.
It’s cold, the bone-chilling, hand-numbing kind that quickly finds me burrowed in my sleeping bag, eyes peering out from the mummy hood currently cinched tightly around my face. To my left, the JMT hikers look frozen. I look like the Michelin man in all my layers. Yet all of us look to be in awe as we stare out from this massive pile of rock at the sky that is just beginning to transition out of the darkness.
At the first hint of light the JMT hikers turn to descend, leaving the two other solo hikers and me on the summit. Everyone is unmoving, faces turned to the rising sun. We are watching the world wake up from the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, our silence a nod to the reverence of this special place; this special moment. Either that, or we’re all beginning to nod off, cocooned as we each are in sleeping bags tucked up against pockets of rock. It’s hard to say, exactly. Regardless, we are quiet, and a soft orange halo across the horizon breaks the pale blue of dawn around us.
The day has gone so smoothly I almost don’t believe it. An idea tugs at me: this day is too good to be true. Have I earned it if I didn’t suffer? If nothing goes wrong, are the stories worth telling?
I want to gently pat myself on the back. Not for the physical act of climbing a 14er, although the novelty isn’t lost on me. No, the sudden swell of pride isn’t for the bagged peak but rather the simple fact that I did this. Not maybe later. Not eventually. Not when I found someone. But me. On my own. I’m not tagging along on the plans or expertise of someone else. This is mine and mine alone.
I feel a sense of pride in the work I’ve done to be comfortable here, or to be here even despite discomfort—to be confident in hiking alone in the darkness just after midnight, with a wavering headlamp that, in retrospect, probably needed a change of batteries.
The day has gone so smoothly I almost don’t believe it. An idea tugs at me: this day is too good to be true. Have I earned it if I didn’t suffer? If nothing goes wrong, are the stories worth telling? Does sunshine and clear sky and bug-free air and a healthy body mean this summit has been too easy, too average? These thoughts wash over me but they don’t settle, and my mind quickly goes blank, content to take in the view that encircles me.
On the descent, I will pass hordes of hikers, but for now, there are still only the three of us and everything is peaceful. Three hours pass, the chill of dawn melts off as the sun begins to climb into the sky. I move only to dig things out of my pack, cold fingers slowly unfolding sunglasses as I squint into the new brightness. I rummage a pop-tart out of a hip belt pocket onto my lap, the sugary sweetness seemingly the only item sounding palpable here at 14,495 feet.
And then, just as the only way to get here was to decide to uproot me from my tent and begin to walk, the only way back down is to uncurl myself from my sleeping bag, shove my pop-tart wrapper and water bottles back into my pack, and, after a quiet head nod to the two thru-hikers as a way of goodbye, once again begin to move.
The trail takes on entirely new energy as I descend. The darkness of earlier has exploded into vibrant color and shape. Before me lies the vivid blue of sun-drenched lakes that were only unseeable pockets of cool air on the way up, the saturated green of scrubby shrubs that looked dull in the glare of my headlamp pre-sunrise, and the brightness of the sun reflecting off of rocks that were only mere contours during my night hiking.
As I pivot to turn down another switchback, each step taking me closer to my tent and a chance to collapse contentedly into an afternoon nap, the corners of my mouth begin to lift. I am grinning wildly at this day, this place, this life; awash in childlike wonder.
I love the challenge of backpacking. I do. I love that I am descending from Mt. Whitney now and then tomorrow will continue walking north as if it never happened, the high summit ultimately only one little blip on the timeline of this hike: a 250 mile adventure that will take me up to Mammoth on the Pacific Crest Trail.
As much as it is humbling to be reminded of my smallness when I stumble through the tough days, it is equally as profound to experience the smooth ones, because they are never guaranteed.
I love the strength I have re-discovered in myself, the type that was always there but occasionally takes hot, dry miles or rain-soaked nights in my tent to find. I’ve gutted out my fair share of misery because I love being outside. The hard days are just something that happens to come with the territory. The good often doesn’t come without the mosquito-ridden, frozen boots, tent flooding, why-is-this-bear-following-me, nothing-going-right, aching-feet-running-for-treeline-in-a-thunderstorm kind of bad.
Often, I find that struggling in the outdoors can (and does) breed growth and good stories, cascades of laughter prompted by “remember whens”, absolute suffer-fests recalled fondly, at least eventually. But does that mean that there must always be a struggle?
The more I think about it, the truth is that I am happy to simply exist on this day. I am happy that, minus a couple of hundred feet of elevation, walking has been easy and the weather has been clear and not a single thing has gone wrong. As much as it is humbling to be reminded of my smallness when I stumble through the tough days, it is equally as profound to experience the smooth ones, because they are never guaranteed.
I, at last, allow myself to admit, sometimes there is no lesson needed; no inherent struggle to muddle through. Sometimes, the elements and the trail and my body all happily conspire to create perfect miles, and sometimes my only job is to appreciate them; to appreciate the sunrise summit, the living breathing body that carries me, and the joy of walking through beautiful places. It’s the lesson of no lesson. It’s knowing gratitude in simply receiving the gift of nothing going wrong.